Friday, January 6, 2017

What, Me, Worry?

A few weeks ago while I was preparing my article about the wise men of Matthew 1, I did some research into the Zoroastrian religion. It was nothing in-depth, merely enough for identification purposes, but I read something in passing that got me thinking. So this week, I want to do a little comparative religion.

Specifically, this is a short look at comparative religion as it relates to eternal judgment. We do not often think of it, but the doctrine of hell is a very unique aspect of Christianity. Now you might initially think I don’t know what I am talking about. Plenty of religions have some type of hell. And you would be right about that. Learning that the Zoroastrians also believe in hell was what got me started on this topic. But believing in hell is not the point. It is what the world’s different religions believe about it that sets Christians apart.

Hell and World Religions

For the Zoroastrians, hell is a place of punishment (surprising, I know). Those who are not believers in life and do not live holy lives are sent there after death. So far, that sounds familiar (although to be specific, the Christian belief in hell is more about separation than punishment). But it is after that point when the differences come in. In Zoroastrianism, hell is not permanent. The souls there suffer, but only enough to purge their sins. After they have paid off their debts, they are able to enter paradise.

This belief in an impermanent hell is fairly common. Mormons, Muslims, and Jehovah’s Witnesses also share versions of it. Even a few people who self-identify as Christians hold this type of view. However, since it cannot be seriously considered a biblical view, it does not really bear consideration as representative of Christianity. Neither does the concept of Purgatory fit in here. While it is similar by being an impermanent place of afterlife punishment, Catholics do still have an orthodox view of hell itself (though if you are interested, I have discussed the problems with Purgatory elsewhere at length).

So that is one common way of looking at hell: it exists, but it isn’t forever. Another is that it does not exist at all. That is the belief of Universalist Unitarians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and obviously atheists of whatever description. Universalism teaches that everyone will be saved, while Buddhism and Hinduism have reincarnation cycles instead of an afterlife as Westerners think of it. Judaism is perhaps a surprise, since the Hebrew Scriptures also shape Christianity. However, the Old Testament does not develop very much of a doctrine of eternity. It is there, of course, but it can be missed. Clarity comes more with the New Testament.

Hell and Christianity

Maybe a day will come when I will go into depth on each of these systems, but it isn’t today. I am not even going to go very far into the Christian doctrine of hell. I only want to say enough to set it apart. And what sets it apart is that it is forever. Rather than making hell impermanent or nonexistent, in the New Testament judgment is real and eternal. A few of the (very many) references making this point are Luke 16:19–31, Mark 9:42–48, and Revelation 20:11–15.

In bringing this up, my purpose is not foremost to make a “fire and brimstone” sermonette. There is some of that here simply as a result of bringing up the topic of hell, of course. And I am not saying now that there is anything wrong with teaching people to fear judgment. But my point is merely a practical one, and as much an encouragement for Christians as it is a call to pragmatic consideration from those who are not believers.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

What I mean is, consider the implications of the various beliefs on hell. In doing so, you will see that being a Christian carries the least risk. If the atheists are right, then my belief will not have hurt me. I will not have wasted my life, because there would be no such thing as “waste.” If Judaism is correct, I get the same result. If either Hinduism or Buddhism is the right track, then my life will have been poorly spent, but it is still a low risk since I just get to start over. The biggest potential problems for me would be on the impermanent-hell spectrum, but so what? If one of them is right, then sure, I will suffer for a while. But it won’t be forever, and eventually I will get out. And of course, if Christianity is true, then I will go to heaven directly. Therefore, being a Christian is the best insurance policy available. Whatever happens, I will be safe.

Now consider the opposite. There is no harm, ultimately, in being a Christian. But if Christianity is correct, then believing anything else comes with the gravest of consequences. If you are an atheist and the Hindus are correct, then no problem, and vice versa. But if Jesus is the only way to salvation, as He claimed to be, then the decision for or against Him in this life is the one chance you get. If you choose wrong, there will be no opportunity to make it up and you will be stuck in the realm of judgment forever.

Some people might consider that unfair. They are wrong, but they are also missing the point. It might seem gracious of all the other religions to give everyone a second chance, and to channel Obi-wan Kenobi, that is true from a certain point of view. But that still means it makes the most sense to follow Jesus. The system with the least margin for error is the most rational choice.

Starting Point

Obviously, I am being a little facetious. There is more to choosing a religion than risk analysis. It also needs to contain the truth. But that is frequently the purpose of my articles, so you can look through them for more details and arguments for the truth of Christianity. This simply represents a starting point. If you have not accepted Christ, I hope this challenges you a little bit to wonder why. I can be wrong at no cost, but you cannot. And if you are a Christian being challenged or proselytized by members of other faiths, then this can be part of your response. You can tell them that Christ is your best bet because it means everything is you are right and nothing if you are wrong. And hopefully that might get them thinking in return. Just a little food for thought.

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